The Two Watches
Over the course of the novel, readers learn that Gabriel Oak and Frank Troy each owns a watch. These watches become metaphors for the men who own them. Oak’s watch, “a small silver clock,” is quite old and “had the peculiarity of going either too fast or not at all.” Oak tries to deal with this defect “by thumps and shakes,” but largely he relies on the natural world as a baseline, often comparing the watch’s time to “observations of the sun and stars” and to neighbors’ clocks. In addition, this watch is hard to pull out; to consult it, Oak has to haul it out of its pocket “like a bucket from a well.”
Troy’s watch, in contrast, is heavy and made of gold, “an unusually good one for a man like me to possess,” he tells Bathsheba. Unlike Oak’s watch, this watch is freighted with the past, a gift from its owner, an earl, to Troy’s father. It is engraved with a five-point crown and the motto “Love yields to circumstance,” and it has, Troy solemnly says, “regulated imperial interests in its time—the stately ceremonial, the courtly assignation, pompous travels, and lordly sleeps.” It belongs to a world that Troy enviously wishes he could inhabit by birthright.
These watches suggest much about their owners. Oak’s, homely and defective, nevertheless is useful. Its defects, in fact, foster the two communities—nature and neighbors—that cause Oak to grow into the wise, compassionate man he becomes. Though imperfect, the watch matters to Oak, who consults it despite its unreliability—rather like the unreliability of the villagers or of Bathsheba herself, flawed people yet, in Oak’s eyes, valuable. Troy’s watch also fits his character and desires. Like him, it is flashy and seductive to the eye, and its motto describes well his manipulations of Fanny and Bathsheba. It represents the society to which he compares the people in his own sphere, finding them lacking. And its method of acquisition—an inheritance, a gift, unearned and undeserved—fits perfectly with Troy’s preferred modus operandi. He does not care for work; he feels that he deserves wealth, leisure, and beauty because of who he is.
When Bathsheba begins to fall for Troy, the narrator comments that “Troy’s deformities lay deep down from a woman’s vision, whilst his embellishments were upon the very surface; thus contrasting with the homely Oak, whose defects were patent to the blindest, and whose virtues were as metals in a mine.” Troy is like his watch—all flash and prettiness and ease, “pompous travels, and lordly sleeps.” Oak and his watch are alike, both like the bucket that must be dropped deep and drawn laboriously from the well before the user experiences its benefits.
While readers must be cautious about over-interpreting characters’ names, certain names in Far from the Madding Crowd suggest shades of meaning. Gabriel Oak, for example, shares his last name with a tree associated with strength, constancy, and prosperity. It suggests the value that Bathsheba takes so long to see but that others recognize quickly in Oak’s capable, strong personality. Oak endures life’s storms and, though they buffet him, emerges unbroken, unlike Boldwood and Bathsheba, who both wreck themselves on misfortune.
Bathsheba, too, has a name fraught with history. The Biblical figure of Bathsheba was a lovely woman whom King David saw bathing (the story is found in 2 Samuel 11 and 12). Her beauty inflamed the king, who had her brought to his room and slept with her despite the fact that she was married; her husband, Uriah, was at war. When she found herself pregnant, David calls Uriah home from the front to give him a report, and then tells him to visit his wife before returning to the front, assuming that Uriah will sleep with his wife. Thus the timing of the child’s birth would not be suspicious. But Uriah refused to shirk his duties. So David had Uriah moved to the front lines and exposed, where he, predictably, died in battle; then the king took Bathsheba as one of his wives. The child died, and David, confronted by the prophet Nathan about his crimes, suffered great grief.
Thus when Hardy’s readers, who generally had extensive Biblical knowledge, read that the vain and beautiful young woman whom Oak sees as she admires her image in her mirror is named Bathsheba, they would have recognized the allusion and wondered what ill effects Bathsheba’s beauty might bring about. Indeed, Boldwood is destroyed by his obsessive desire to obtain Bathsheba, and Troy claims that he would have married Fanny had not “Satan . . . tempted me with that face of yours.” Readers may also recall that Bathsheba’s father had her mother, also a beautiful woman, pretend not to be married to him so that he could enjoy an illicit desire for her. Readers may wonder what possessed such a man to name his daughter Bathsheba. Yet another, happier parallel between the Biblical character and Bathsheba exists: Both survive grief and death to enjoy life again.
Sheep, Bees, and Other Animals
Throughout the novel, the animals that inhabit the farms, and the characters’ interactions with the animals, provide parallel views into the relationships among characters and commentary about human behavior. Consider a few examples: The younger dog, whose adherence to the “rules” of herding is not tempered by the judgment experience brings, drives the herd to its death. The dog’s overzealous behavior, which results in its own destruction, is like that of people who “follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent behavior in a world made up so largely of compromise.” As the novel develops, readers watch as two very different characters do the same. Boldwood cannot be made to see that basing his pursuit of Bathsheba on a silly prank, which she deeply regrets, endangers them both. His obsessive “herding” of Bathsheba (who, incidentally, is compared to a stolen lamb in the Biblical story) drives them both toward destruction. Troy, too, cannot learn a new behavior set to replace the one that resulted in a pregnant fiancée, a destroyed military career, a wrecked household economy, and a grieving wife. Till the moment of his death, he is still fixated on getting present pleasure for as little cost to himself as possible.
The bees, which make a brief appearance, and the sheep, which are of much concern throughout the novel, are both creatures hived or herded for the benefit of people. Both, at times, stand in for the woman who is desired by three men and reveal something of her problems. Troy “hives” her as he does the bees, driving her into compromising situations, as he likely did Fanny in her turn, and then turning her vanity and her sense of right behavior against her in order to capture her. Boldwood, as has been mentioned, inflates Bathsheba’s guilt over a trifle in order to cut off her excuses for not marrying him, one by one, and herd her into his keeping. Only Oak, whose astute knowledge of and careful care for the sheep make him the bailiff everyone wants to hire, also has the knowledge of and love for Bathsheba to be her companion-lover. He reveals his merit in the care of her sheep and her land, but while other characters have no difficulty seeing this, it eludes Bathsheba till the end of the novel.
Marriage as Prison
Even in this early novel, Hardy began to express doubts about the state of marriage. Although he was at the time of composition preparing to enter his first marriage, which was a happy union for a time, he felt strongly the limitations marriage brought to many women in his culture. Later novels deal more extensively with this issue and brought him much censure from cultural gatekeepers, but even in this novel, which ends in a happy marriage of friends, there are hints that marriage can be a prison. Readers see these hints in Bathsheba’s reluctance to marry and in her experience of marriage. When Gabriel first proposes to Bathsheba, she says that while being courted and being a bride might be nice, being a wife is another matter: “I hate to be thought men’s property in that way,” she declares, and there would be no escape from a husband—he’d “always be there.” It takes very little time, after her marriage to Troy, to see that she is no longer mistress of the farm. At the harvest feast, not only does Troy get the men drunk though she begs him not to, but he peremptorily sends her away; and she has no control over her economy, which he is happy to gamble away. When she discovers his relationship to Fanny, the imagery of imprisonment is strong. She “was conquered . . . . She chafed to and fro in rebelliousness, like a caged leopard.” She had been proud that “her waist had never been encircled by a lover’s arm” in a gesture of possession; now she is bound to a man who loves ease and pleasure, not her. The narrator comments that Bathsheba “instinctively adored” Diana, goddess of virginity. When, after Troy is presumed dead, Boldwood forces Bathsheba’s promise of marriage from her, he, too, begins to build the prison he hopes will hold her. It is a gilded cage, baited with beautiful jewelry and clothing but just as deadly to her, built as it is on the question of what she “owes” Boldwood because of his overreaction to a childish lapse in judgment. Fittingly, since the novel is a pastoral romance, Boldwood at last realizes the horror of his behavior and imprisons himself after, whether intentionally or merely out of despair, he kills Troy, freeing Bathsheba from the marriage into which Troy’s manipulations and her own vanity trapped her.